6. THE WAR ENDED ON 15th AUGUST 1945 ...  and so did my childhood. I was 14.
Wartime memories of Farnborough Kent children

by Pat Chivrall nee Williams. November 2004.  

My Mum Mrs Amy Williams had just heard the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on the wireless telling everyone that as Hitler had not stopped his troops from invading Poland, Britain was at war with Germany. She gave me a farthing and told me to go over to Scotsman Mr Tasker’s sweet shop opposite the Woodman pub and buy some of my favourite sweets. Isn’t it incredible that back in 1939 you could buy sweets for one quarter of one old penny? 960 farthings made one pound! My favourites at that time were liquorice laces – jet black curled up rolls of sweet that looked a bit like the football laces that players in Farnborough Old Boys Guild Football team used in their boots. But Mum emphasised that I should take the gas mask that the ARP had recently issued me with and that I shouldn’t go too far away from home, as there was likely to be an air raid warning very soon.  

With some of the other Alley Kids I walked the short distance down Pleasant View, along the High Street past the Lockyer’s house and the Limes Laundry to Mr Tasker’s shop opposite the Woodman. I bought my sweets and then ambled back across the road to sit on the steps of Mr Clacey’s shop. It’s now an insurance brokers, but back then Mr Clacey was a very important person in our lives as he charged up the accumulators for our wireless sets. Incidentally his son Billy became a postman after the war and served Farnborough village for many years. Billy married Betty Allchorne who lived at what was then number one Pleasant View. But I mustn’t get carried away. As I was saying, each week we would take one of our two thick glass accumulators into Mr Clacey’s shop and collect the other one that had been bubbling and fizzing away for a few days connected to the electricity supply by two wires. Mr Clacey had electricity but none of the cottages in Pleasant View did. But thanks to accumulator power, we did have the wireless. Ours was like a large mahogany brown rectangular box with three large knobs at the bottom. On the tuning dial there were the names of the main radio transmitters of the time. Daventry, Paris, Hilversum, Beromunster and so on. Our wireless was connected by a squiggly wire to a long aerial that ran the length of our garden. Some people even thought it was an extra very thin washing line. That’s how my Mum heard the news about the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939.   

My friends and I sat on the steps and clutched at our newly issued gas masks. Although they were delivered from the ARP post at the side of the village green in a cardboard box, house-proud Mums like mine made sure that you had a posh carrying case. Mine was made from a smart brown material. We didn’t have long to wait sitting on the steps as Moaning Minnie, the air-raid siren soon started wailing. It was on the top of the telephone exchange in Church Road next to the then post office and near The George and Dragon. We rushed home to our Mums but the all clear sounded not long afterwards and I think that we were all a bit disappointed that nothing more exciting had happened.  

But things did start to happen just under a year later during the summer and autumn of 1940 when old Adolph decided that if he was going to send his soldiers to capture England, he’d better knock-out the Royal Air Force first. We saw “Our Boys” as we called them then, tearing across our Farnborough skies in their single seater Hurricanes and Spitfires, trying to fight off Jerry planes. Some time later those fights became known as The Battle of Britain, but all we knew then was that we had to go into the shelter and try to be safe. We often used to share the Anderson shelter of our neighbours Reg and Emily Pucknell. They had five children, Geoffrey, Peggy, John, David and Carol and together with my sisters Christine and baby Anita we all had to squeeze into their shelter. It was quite a laugh really. Added to this, old Mrs Owen from 34 High Street also squeezed in, that’s before the Orpington Urban District Council built her a special reinforced brick shelter in her garden that amazingly is still there today. She was a bit comical and always brought a bucket with her. Well there wasn’t a toilet in the shelter and she couldn’t hop out as quickly as we younger ones could. She always wore dark clothing including a long black skirt. Widows did that in those days. And underneath her skirt she wore long, baggy, old-fashioned bloomers. She called them drawers. I suppose that was quite sensible really as they were very warm and it got pretty cold at night in the shelter even in the summer.  

One day we heard that something unusual was happening down on The Bottom Road,” our name for Shire Lane. The road’s at the bottom of a dry chalk valley called a “Bottom,” so to call it The Bottom Road because it’s at the bottom of a bottom is logical – if you get my meaning. My Mum Amy, her friend Floss – Mrs Florence Riches – plus lots of the children went to see what was happening. Coming down the slope from The Firs, our name for Mill Hill, towards the junction of Shire and North End Lanes we saw a huge balloon moored to a wagon by a cable. When the winch on the wagon was operated the huge balloon was raised high up in the sky. The cable was strong enough to destroy any aeroplane colliding with it. When all our boys in their Hurricanes and Spitfires had landed at Biggin Hill aerodrome across the fields, this barrage balloon and lots more dotted around the area would be raised to try to stop the German dive-bombers destroying the airfield. We had a long chat with the women and men in the crew who showed us how everything worked and then went back home amazed.  

Old Nasty’s pilots used to drop small bombs from their aeroplanes that burst into flame when they hit the ground. We saw a few of them up the fields after they’d burnt out. The idea was that if they hit a building and ignited, that building was likely to be destroyed by fire. During the Blitz up in London a lot of these small incendiary bombs were dropped and caused a huge number of fires that destroyed homes, offices and factories. So to make sure that any fires started were quickly brought under control, the government appointed Fire Watchers whose job it was to spot any blazes and get them put out quickly. Well, my Dad Christopher Williams, who had a crippled right hand so couldn’t hold a rifle, was one of those Fire Watchers. That really was a laugh. Most nights after dark he had to report for duty at the fire watchers’ headquarters – the Ex Service Man’s Club only 20 yards or so from our front door. Whilst they were watching, they drank Shepherd Neame ales. Although they got a bit merry at times I never remember them ever spotting a fire. But they enjoyed it and felt they were doing their little bit for the war effort.  

Not far from Farnborough there were lots of ack-ack guns manned by members of the Royal Artillery. We even had a mobile ack-ack gun cruising up Farnborough High Street sometimes. These anti-aircraft guns used to try to hit Jerry planes attempting to bomb Biggin Hill. Well, as you know, what goes up must come back down. When the ack-ack shells exploded, all the small bits of metal fell back down to earth and very rapidly we all learned a new word – shrapnel.  It was in fact named after a Royal Artillery lieutenant back in 1803. If there was an air raid during the night with the ack-ack banging away, we would all be huddled on the bunks in the shelter trying to get some sleep.  But in the morning after the long steady note of the all clear had sounded from the roof of the telephone exchange in Church Road, we would be out in the streets trying to collect new shrapnel. The secret was to gather it while parts were still very shiny metal, before damp caused it to quickly rust over. Some of us had collections of shrapnel in special boxes. I wonder if anyone still has his or her collection today? Later in the war after radar had been invented, the Germans used to throw silver foil out of their bombers passing over Farnborough to try to cause disruption on the detector cathode ray screens. We saw a lot of this silver paper. Sometimes the fastenings round the packs of foil failed to open properly and they fell to earth intact. The boys especially were very keen to get their hands on them.  

After D-Day my Mum went to work up Farnborough Hospital where they’d built lots of huts for injured soldiers. Sometimes I would go up to Hut C where my Mum worked with my little sister Anita. The nurses and doctors were happy for us to be there as it helped to cheer the patients up.  

It must have been in the first part of 1944 when we were evacuated from Farnborough to Burton on Trent in Staffordshire. As my Mum wanted to stay at home to be with my Dad, I went with my Auntie Ada Collins and her new baby Michael. At first we didn’t really like it in Burton as we stayed with a couple that were not very nice. But then we moved to the Mayor’s house and it was there three weeks later that Auntie Ada learned that her husband Fred had arrived back in England on a troop ship from Ceylon. As Uncle Fred had never seen his new son Michael, Auntie Ada took us back to Farnborough so that she could be with her husband. Not long after arriving back I heard a most awful noise up in the sky. My Dad explained that it was one of those new Buzz Bombs.  
  On Sundays we often went to church at St Giles and then visited Big Gran and Little Gran. Both sets of our grandparents lived locally, unlike today when families are dotted round the world. Big Gran lived in Pitt Road and Little Gran was only a short distance away in a cottage in Church Road opposite Wickens the bakers. Granddad always gave us a penny and as we grew older that was increased to three pence in the form of a “Joey,” a tiny silver coin that was becoming rarer even then. We preferred Joeys to the new twelve-sided 3d coin.

Back in the 1940’s, open fires heated most of the houses up our Alley. Although we could get some coal, probably delivered by Sammy Catlett who lived in Orchard Road, it helped to keep us all cosy if we could get wood from up the fields. One day our Mums realised that foresters were cutting down the trees in The Larches – that we called James’s Wood. Why? Because Mr and Mrs Janes our parents’ friends, lived in Sevenoaks Lodge – one of the gatekeeper’s cottages at the end of one of the long drives up to Holwood House where Lord and Lady Stanley lived. Although the lodge faced onto Shire Lane it was surrounded on three sides by the wood. Janes’s was corrupted to James’s and even to St James’s. We went down to see the foresters and watched them felling trees with well-sharpened axes. It was very tough physical work and the men were extremely strong! They cut a ‘V’ on the side of the trunk where they wanted the tree to fall and then, using a very long cross-cut saw with a man at each end, dropped the tree almost exactly where they wanted to. Our Mums asked if we could collect up all the chips of wood that the axes had made. The foresters were happy to agree as they would only get thrown on their bonfire with all the unwanted twigs and small branches. So we carried the chips home for our fires. Amongst the tall live trees there was the occasional thin, dead one that was useless for the foresters. Our Mums and sometimes our Dads, would rock these dead trees. If they toppled to the ground they were quickly cut up into manageable lengths and carried home on our shoulders. The Pucknell family next door even made a trolley with large wheels taken from an old baby’s pram so that quite large logs could be wheeled home across Ladycroft field and down the footpath alongside the club. The winters back in the 1940’s were much colder than today, so if there was a snowfall, once we children had finished sledging down Clalky Luggate near the church, our parents would commandeer the sledges, take them up into the woods and slide logs of wood back home to be cut up on our home made sawing horses. It was all very hard physical work but they were happy times and our parents made sure we all stayed nice and warm, even in the coldest weather.  

Most of the time we kept clean by rubbing ourselves over with warmed flannels and soap. But Friday night was always bath night so that we would be nice and clean for the weekend. My Mum would carry in the large zinc plated bath that was kept outside in the shed, place it by the solid fuel boiler and then pour in as many boiling kettles full of water that she could heat up. When added cold water had reduced the temperature, little Anita, my other sister Christine and I would take a bath in turn. After a good scrub of our bodies, Mum would wash our hair using ordinary soap as I don’t think shampoo had been invented then. She would then rinse off the soap with a mixture of warm water and vinegar. Some of our neighbours used beer for rinsing as that was supposed to be better but my Dad reckoned that was a waste of perfectly good ale. To finish off the Friday night procedure we were told to swallow syrup of figs. It tasted absolutely revolting but was supposed to keep our bowels open. Why we needed medicine to keep our bowels open don’t ask me, as we ate a very healthy diet loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables.    

Dad insisted that we should all help on his allotment round the back of the Ex-Serviceman’s Club at the end of Pleasant View. I loved the summer and autumn best of all when we could dig new potatoes, pick peas and beans, harvest onions and best of all pick apples that were available in three varieties – eaters, cookers and storers. We laid out lots of storing apples on shelves in the garage that Dad rented from the Club and these would last us right into the New Year. We kept chickens and rabbits in our very small back garden so that we always had fresh eggs and an occasional extra meat ration. We even had a lamb for a short time. All the kids from school came to take it for walks on a lead. As it grew bigger we didn’t have the room, so it went to a farm up Downe way. Rats and mice were always a problem with chicken and rabbit food lying around, but the cats that lived on Fishers Farm close by used to hunt them and leave their victims lying all over the place.  

Aunty Floss – Mrs Florence Riches a neighbour who lived next door but one at 3. Prospect Place – the first of the very old cottages up Pleasant View – used to take us on long walks up the fields and teach us the names of all the trees: oak, beech, chestnut, horse chestnut, ash, sycamore, holly and so on.

She seemed to know the names of all the flowers and taught us which types of fungi were safe to take home. A fry-up with bacon, eggs from our own hens, home grown tomatoes and freshly gathered wild mushrooms from up the fields! Wonderful memories! Aunty Floss taught us which berries were safe to eat. Blackberries, wild raspberries and damsons would all be taken home to be stewed for puddings, or bottled so that we could enjoy the fruits of the summer in the middle of the winter. Remember that as freezers didn’t exist then we had to be very resourceful. Each day we ate a large spoonful of cod liver oil and malt that we bought from Mr Newling’s chemist shop down the village in The Square where the red double decked London Transport 47 and 51 buses turned round. After the Germans had surrendered in the summer of 1945, prisoners of war helped with picking the strawberries. We went camping with Farnborough Girl Guides to Bromley Common, but came home each night, as there were no shelters there should there be an air raid or a doodlebug about.  

Throughout the war there were Saturday night dances in the Parish Room. I can’t get used to it being called a Village Hall now. Servicemen on leave would often attend for a bit of relaxation and female company. A boy who lived up Starts Hill, whose name I’ve forgotten, was the bandleader. I was allowed to go over the road to the dance with my Uncle George Symonds – my mother’s younger brother. He was a Gold Medallist dancer and taught me a lot of dance steps that were in vogue then – waltz, quickstep, foxtrot and so on.   With all that exercise, fresh healthy food and a simple life style I should have been very fit. But I still caught tuberculosis four years after the war ended when I was eighteen. I think I was one of the lucky ones. Clem Atlee’s Labour Government had introduced the National Health Service the year before and X-ray vans that toured the villages fortunately spotted that I had T.B. I was treated with streptomycin, one of the new miracle drugs that was only discovered in 1943 and was; by the time I was ill, available to treat me. After ten months in a sanatorium I was cured. But that’s another story.  

Now after all these years I look back and remember how we went up the fields, played in the sand pit, climbed trees, made camps, walked to Keston Fish Ponds, took sandwiches to the Seven Lakes to see the wonderful display of rhododendrons and wandered all over the place learning about the countryside. Amazingly, despite the war, we had a brilliant childhood.  

The war ended on 15th August 1945 and so did my childhood! I was past the then school leaving age of 14 and began adult life immediately by starting to work at the Co-op Department store in Widmore Road, Bromley.    

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